“A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying Man’s achievements… A step into the future, with predictions of constructed things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals. The Atomic Age, the challenge of Outer Space and the hope for a peaceful, unified world.”
— Walt Disney Tomorrowland Theme Park Dedication, July 17, 1955
Are you an optimist, or a pessimist? That’s the question at the heart of Tomorrowland, which portrays a world literally dying of pessimism. The film is based loosely on the retro-futuristic Disneyland attraction of the same name. It follows its protagonist, Casey Newton, on an adventure across time, space, and the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
Tomorrowland is a work by Brad Bird, director of animated classics like The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, two extremely well regarded movies. It’s also a Disney action adventure, following a series of hits including Big Hero 6 and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. In other words, there’s a lot of pressure on this movie to be phenomenal.
Is Tomorrowland worth watching? Read our spoiler-free review for geeks below to find out.
The Plot of Tomorrow
The setup goes something like this: a long time ago, a group of scientists and visionaries decided to get away from the bureaucracy and shortsightedness of the world, and create a city where science could flourish unhindered, with infinite resources. If you’re having flashbacks to the opening sequence of Bioshock, we’re not surprised.
While Andrew Ryan, the primary antagonist of that video game, merely tried to seastead the bottom of the ocean, the plot of Tomorrowland sees the scientists of the 1960s opting to build their city in another universe. Traveling back and forth is handled by means of an extremely violent teleportation process, which looks like it is definitely known to cause cancer in the state of California.
Without revealing any major spoilers, at some point it all goes wrong, and the dour Governor Nix, played to glowering perfection by Hugh Laurie, seals all portals to Earth and declares it a lost cause.
Now it’s up to Casey Newton, along with a few unlikely allies, to find a way to return to Tomorrowland, and save the world.
Or something: unfortunately, the plot (which is actually pretty cool) is presented in a messy, out-of-order fashion. Even halfway through the movie, I still wasn’t 100 percent sure what was going on or what was at stake. Probably because of this, the first act of the movie feels pretty darn slow.
The City, The Sights
This movie is an unabashed orgy of special effects, and I thoroughly enjoyed this particular aspect. The film features colossal repair robots, robots that 3D-print buildings (climbing atop them as they go), jet packs, trains that look suspiciously like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, teleporters, energy weapons, space travel, and intensely creepy rubber androids.
The androids in particular get a lot of screen time, as the film takes a particular delight in mutilating them. As with Tron: Legacy‘s voxelized gore, Disney has once again found a way to reskin ultra-violence just enough to maintain a PG (Parental Guidance) rating.
Unlike franchises like Battlestar Galactica and Blade Runner, which have embraced androids so humanoid that they hardly count, these androids are gratifyingly mechanical. Their skin, when it gets damaged, is clearly made of rubber, and you can see wires, motors, and microchips underneath. These aren’t so far off from the humanoid robots already possible today, and they definitely reside in the uncanny valley.
One of the most interesting characters in the film is a recruiting android who ropes the protagonist into the plot. Her inability to experience emotion or consciousness has lead to decades of bad blood with leading man George Clooney. As she puts it, “It’s not personal – it’s programming.”
This echoes the difficulty of building artificial intelligence platforms that can interact with human beings in a way that feels genuine. Right now, the best artificial intelligence systems in the world are finally conquering the problem of comprehending the literal meaning of text – a monumental undertaking. Going further will require new insights and powerful new technologies.
Tomorrowland seems to have a fetish for space travel, which the film uses as a symbol for optimism and progress. Casey Newton is the daughter of a NASA engineer, and spends her free time sabotaging cranes being used to disassemble the Space Shuttle launch pad at Cape Canaveral.
The VR ‘commercial’ for Tomorrowland that Casey encounters via the pin (featured heavily in the trailers) ends with the viewer climbing aboard a spaceship, bound for a destination “20 light-years away” – perhaps Gliese 581, a potentially-habitable exoplanet that fits the bill. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder what the protagonists think of SpaceX.
Speaking of that pin, it might just be because I’ve spent the last week experimenting with VR locomotion strategies, but the virtual reality of the pin feels weirdly spot-on. Casey, immersed in the world of the pin, cracks her head on several walls, falls down a flight of stairs, and wanders into a lake. That’s a colorful-but-accurate example of some of the challenges VR developers are facing right now with room-scale tracking. Clearly, the scientists in the movie hadn’t solved them either, though the pin is a little more sophisticated than existing headsets.
With all this being said, obsessing over the technology of Tomorrowland is missing the point, at least a little. For a movie about the future, it isn’t very interested in talking about how this stuff actually works. Tomorrowland is about being awed by all the cool stuff on screen, not double-checking the math.
A Little More Conversation, a Little More Action
When I said Tomorrowland reminded me of Bioshock earlier, it wasn’t a superficial comparison. Like The Incredibles, the film is absolutely throbbing with Objectivist themes and imagery. It’s one uncomfortable sex scene and a monologue about trains away from being an Ayn Rand novel.
The movie is very definite about some people being special and important, and the need to get those people away from the small-minded masses who want their cut. It’s pretty much the plot of Atlas Shrugged, to be honest.
Like a Rand novel, Tomorrowland likes to preach. For a movie with so much screen time devoted to explosions and jetpacks and robots getting hit by cars, it finds quite a bit of time for monologues. Expect to hear the moral of the film explained to you by at least three different characters over the course of the movie.
This comes up more and more as the movie winds towards its conclusion. The final act goes distinctly off the rails, and the last-minute revelations feel forced and contrived, too-neatly wrapping up a plot we didn’t know about about 20 minutes before.
The pacing of the film is also very strange, and many plot threads fail to come together in a meaningful way. It feels like a movie hamstrung by too many creative pressures, and the kind of thing that might be redeemed by a really good “Director’s Cut” in a few years.
- The heroes and villains are both charming and interesting.
- Neat visuals and technology.
- A truly novel premise
- Gets points for optimism in a sci-fi movie, a rare commodity these days.
- The film can’t hold up under the weight of its saccharine preachiness.
- The pacing is off.
- The plot is never clear enough to the viewer.
- The final act is weak.
Tomorrowland has a lot of good stuff in it, including cool characters, interesting plots, and strong visual design. It’s a shame that those elements aren’t part of a better movie. Tomorrowland as a whole is a mess of uneven storytelling, bad pacing, preachiness, and plot threads that don’t go anywhere.
In short, Tomorrowland isn’t a good movie – but it is one that made me really want to like it. It’s just about worth seeing, but probably not in theaters. Instead, consider paying a few dollars to see it on YouTube in a few months.
MakeUseOf rates Tomorrowland 3 stars out of 5.